Higher Education Reforms in India: Credits, Semesters and Access


The Indian higher education system faces a raft of challenges, among which the issue of access and quality rank near the top. The government has set a goal of increasing the enrollment ratio among Indians of college age (gross enrollment ratio, or GER) to 30 percent by 2020, from a current rate of just under 20 percent. In doing so, the government hopes to bring the nation’s GER broadly into line with the projected 2020 global average. It also recognizes that quality standards need to be improved in tandem with access if the GER goals are to have a measurable impact on the broader Indian economy.

The GER goals were laid out in the government’s 11th five-year plan (2007-2012) at the beginning of which India’s GER was significantly lower than today’s 20 percent, at just 12.3 percent. So, clearly, significant progress has been made with regards to increasing access to higher studies. Noting this success, the 12th (and current) five-year plan (2012-2017) goes on to discuss the need to continue improving access to higher education, while also stressing the importance of doing it in conjunction with improvements in quality and social equity.

“Hence, the Twelfth Plan adopts a holistic approach to the issues of expansion, equity and excellence so that expansion is not just about accommodating ever larger number[s] of students, but is also about providing diverse choices of subjects, levels and institutions while ensuring a minimum standard of academic quality and providing the opportunity to pursue higher education to all sections of society, particularly the disadvantaged.”

In this article we take a look at the reforms put forth under the current planning document, with a particular focus on the academic initiatives outlined under the Ministry of Human Resources Development’s (MHRD) 2013 Rashtriya Uchchattar Shiksha Abhiyan (RUSA) plan. These include the introduction of academic credits, significant curriculum changes, new assessment protocols and the transition to a semester-based academic calendar.


Tertiary-level enrollments in India have been growing at break-neck speed in recent years, from 16.6 million in 2006 to 26 million in 2011. The government plans to increase this number by a further 10 million within the next three years to achieve a 25 percent GER by 2017, thereby keeping it on track to meet its end-of-decade 30 percent GER goal.


Much of the overall growth in enrollments that happened between 2007 and 2012 occurred within the state and private sectors, with the more prestigious centrally funded universities still accounting for less than 3 percent of total enrollments in 2012, despite strong relative growth of 82 percent over the five-year period. State institutions grew enrollments by 39.3 percent, while private institutions (mainly affiliate colleges) saw an almost 59 percent increase.

This enrollment growth was achieved mainly through the establishment of new institutions, which grew by an incredible 58 percent during the 11th planning period to 46,430 (2011), according to government data. Of those, just 645 were degree-awarding institutions (now 700), with 12,748 diploma-granting institutions and 33,023 colleges (now more than 35,000) affiliated to 174 universities. Just 414 of India’s colleges have autonomy over curriculum, assessment and budget. Of the 645 degree-awarding institutions in 2011, 191 were private.

Under the current planning period, growth will continue to be focused on the state and private sectors, with a diversity of institutions being encouraged to flourish, including a new U.S.-modeled community college sector. The goal is to create diversity and flexibility within the higher education system such that it can better respond to the needs of local labor markets, and in turn create a more productive learning environment for the student. The first step in this process is to allocate significantly more funding – both state and federal – to the state university sector and to significantly increase the academic and budgetary autonomy of university-affiliated colleges.

Large and reputed colleges with adequate infrastructural capabilities and a diverse range of programs will be converted to fully-fledged universities, according to current government plans, while many colleges that are affiliated to degree-granting institutions would be converted to constituent campuses. College mergers will also be encouraged, in order to grow the number of autonomous degree-granting institutions within the country.

Academic Reforms

In concert with plans to broaden access to tertiary study opportunities, the 12th Five-Year Plan also discusses the need for a deepening of academic reforms, with institutions being asked to shift their instructional emphasis from an “input-centric and credential-focused” approach to a more “learner-centric” approach. This is to be achieved through: regular revisions to curricula, the implementation of a choice-based credit system, the introduction of continuous and comprehensive student evaluations, a cumulative grade point system, and new marking and grading schemes.

Learner-centric curriculum reforms include the introduction of credit requirements for non-major elective courses and the creation of syllabi and programs based on learning outcomes relevant to the labor market.

Details of 12th Plan reform initiatives in the higher education space are outlined in the Ministry of Human Resource Development’s 2013 Rashtriya Uchchattar Shiksha Abhiyan (RUSA) policy document. The RUSA initiatives build on plans first circulated in 2009 under the UGC’s Action Plan for Academic and Administrative Reforms, and have an implementation window through to the end of the 13th planning period (2017-2022).

The RUSA reforms are aimed primarily at improving funding for the state university system where 94 percent of university students (state universities, affiliated colleges private and public) are enrolled. Currently, state universities are so heavily reliant on the affiliation fees they receive from affiliated colleges that they operate primarily as administrative and exam conducting centers rather than as multi-dimensional institutions that also promote teaching, research and faculty development.

Recognizing these shortcomings, the RUSA document states:

“Instead of increasing access in a positive way, the affiliation system creates a highly centralized and inefficient institutional structure, which does not allow its constituents any room for creativity in teaching, learning, curriculum development or research. In such a structure, quality enhancement can only be brought about by reducing the burden at the university level and giving greater autonomy and accountability to the constituents through affiliation reforms.”

In order to be eligible for funding under RUSA, states have to fulfill certain prerequisites. These include the creation of State Higher Education Councils, the introduction of accreditation agencies, a commitment to contributing a certain share to the RUSA funds, and the introduction of academic reforms as outlined in the UGC’s 2009 Action Plan. Newly formed State Higher Education Councils are to be responsible for driving these reforms, and institutions will have to be in compliance with state standards including mandatory accreditation by the relevant body in order to receive RUSA funding.

The Building Blocks

The MHRD’s RUSA academic reform recommendations, drafted in collaboration with heads of central, state and deemed universities across India, are designed to promote more responsive, diverse, and flexible learning opportunities based on the following building blocks.


Semester System

The key facets of the new semester system are as follows:

  • Two semesters of five to six months in duration, versus academic terms spread over 10 to 12 months.
  • Credits based on the workload of the learner, with one credit point generally corresponding to 30 to 40 learning hours.
  • Comprehensive continuous assessment (versus end-of-year examinations).
  • New assessment protocols based on grades rather than marks, and the use of cumulative grade point scores to define overall achievement.
  • Curricular flexibility and increased options for student mobility.
  • Regular updates to curriculum.

Indian institutions have traditionally worked on the ‘academic session,’ with grading based on end-of year examinations, as opposed to end-of-semester examinations as is more common in Europe and North America. Among other things, the MHRD hopes the new semester system will lead to increased student engagement throughout the academic year, while also reducing the burden of end-of-year cramming.

A number of technical and professional institutions in India already use the semester system, including BITS Pilani, which pioneered the system in India, Jawaharlal Nehru University and the Indian Institutes of Technology, which have always had a semester system.

Under the guidelines of the RUSA reform initiatives, the semester must include a minimum of 90 teaching days spread over 18 weeks, with clear definitions on the duration of instruction, assessment, and end-of-semester examinations for evaluation. A full-time load of five courses per semester at the undergraduate level would equate to approximately five contact hours per day or 25 hours per week, for a minimum of 450 hours per semester.

The MHRD has allotted a two-year window for the changes to be made at federally operated universities and three years at state universities. This is stated in the 2013 RUSA document, and implementation appears to be underway at a number of universities across the country.

The RUSA policy document also calls for a change in instructional methodology, with a reduced emphasis on lecturing and increased opportunity for student interaction. Instruction is to be divided into three components: Lecture, Tutorial, Practical (lab, fieldwork, case studies)(LTP), with credits weighted for each component based on hourly contact per week.

Assessment would also move away from externally marked end-of-year examinations, which the MHRD says leads to cramming of ‘superficial’ information, towards an assessment protocol that would include both internal and external evaluation. Internal evaluations would include essays, tutorial presentations, lab work, and term papers. End-of-semester evaluation would seek to assess the skills and knowledge of students, moving away from examinations that require students to memorize and reproduce information.

Grading is to be based on cumulative grade points, moving away from the more abrupt marks and divisions of the current system. In a follow-up to this article in an upcoming issue of WENR, we will take an in-depth look at new grading and division scales across India.

Choice Based Credit System (CBCS)

The Ministry of Human Resource Development’s plans for the new national credit system would allow for more flexible learning patterns with greater course choices, the ability to transfer credits between institutions, improved quality standards, and greater flexibility for mature students to complete programs over an extended period of time. It is also hoped that the new semester and credit system will encourage more frequent revisions to curriculum and more relevance to the labor market, with the RUSA policy document outlining a process of curriculum stocktaking and revision every three years.

Credits under the Choice Based Credit System are awarded based on the successful completion of a course of study measured in terms of classroom contact hours and volume of content studied. A semester credit is measured as one lecture (one hour) per week over the course of the semester, a minimum of two hours of tutorials a week, or one practical session per week. Most courses of study are weighted at three or four credits, with instruction and learning divided across one or more of the three LTP delivery options (see above).

Courses may be constructed to combine all three LTP elements, so a four-credit course, for example, might involve 2 one-hour lectures per week (two credits), 1 two-hour tutorial (one credit), and one practicum (one credit). A more interactive course might be structured with no lecture, two 2-hour tutorials (two credits), and two labs (two credits) per week. The specific credit make-up of a course will vary from subject to subject and from institution to institution based on curriculum design and desired learning outcomes.

Broadly speaking, marks-based assessment of coursework is weighted at 25 marks per credit, or 100 marks for a four-credit course. Non-credit courses are marked as a straight pass (Satisfactory or ‘S’ grade) or fail (Unsatisfactory or ‘X’).

Guidelines on credit load for specific levels of study are as follows:

  • Certificate (Level 1): 6-8 credits.
  • Diploma (Level 2): 50-60 credits.
  • Postgraduate Diploma: 50-60 credits.
  • Undergraduate degree program (three year): 120-150 credits.
  • Undergraduate technical program (four year): 200-240 credits.
  • Master’s program: 100-120 credits.
  • Technical master’s program: 150-180 credits.
  • Research degrees (M.Phil, M.Tech, LLM): 50-60 credits, with 25-credit thesis.
  • Doctoral degree (coursework): 25 credits.
  • Doctoral degree after M.Phil: 100 credits.
  • Doctoral degree without M.Phil but after doctoral coursework: 125 credits

Programs are to be constructed with ‘core compulsory’ courses, elective core classes chosen from a pool of courses relevant to the major (‘soft core’), and open elective courses that are not necessarily related to the program of study. There are also options for coursework and self-study projects, if desired and allowed by the department or institution.

The intention is that students will have the opportunity to diversify their study experience and build a broader base of knowledge by choosing elective courses outside their major of study, while also having the option to choose electives within their field of study. This would mark a significant change from the more prescriptive manner in which programs are currently constructed and taught.

Curriculum Development

The MHRD states that “curricular revision should be an ongoing academic activity involving all the faculty members.” This should happen “substantially every three years for all courses.”

Admission Procedures

The MHRD calls for a new admissions process that has “objectivity and transparent procedures,” as a means of ensuring “access, inclusion, equity and quality.”

Merit-based admissions protocols would include: clear and well-publicized guidelines on admission procedures, including number of available places, required qualifications and important admissions dates; unbiased and confidential admissions assessments and adherence to ‘reservation provisions’ for certain underrepresented groups, with availability of appropriate bridging courses.


Reform plans for the assessment of student knowledge are aimed at lessening the intense focus and cramming that currently occurs at the end of each academic year.  This is to be achieved by moving toward a system of continuous internal evaluation that would be complemented by more traditional end-of-semester external evaluation.

Assessment weighting for a four credit-course graded on a 100-mark scale might look something like this (taken from a Himachal Pradesh, Department of Higher Education presentation):

  • Quiz 1: 15 marks
  • Quiz 2: 15 marks
  • End Semester Exam: 50 marks
  • Assignments, class test, discussion/participation: 15 marks
  • Attendance: 5 marks

It should be noted here that the MHRD states that the evaluation outcome may be expressed either by predetermined marks or by grades. This has led to distinct differences in grading schemes between institutions, and also from state to state. In a follow-up article we will discuss India’s new grading and degree classification schemes and the implications for credential evaluation in the United States, as in some cases the new grading schema that we are beginning to see are radically different from the traditional Indian marks and classification scheme.

University committees are responsible for deciding appropriate weighting of internal and external assessments. Following the integration of internal and external evaluations, the results may be expressed either as marks, grades or both, depending on the policy of the university. However, raw end-of semester marks or grades are to be converted to grade points, with a student’s final performance expressed as a cumulative grade point score (CGPS). The CGPS can be based on a 5-point or 10-point scale, although examples of 7-point scales also appear to exist.

Students earn credits with minimum pass marks or better (now 40 percent versus 30 or 35 percent). The same number of credits are awarded to each student regardless of performance, as long as a pass mark is achieved. The grade point score is used to gauge the overall quality of student performance.

The CGPS is calculated by multiplying credits earned (with the exception of pass/fail courses) by grade point achieved and divided by total course credits (excepting pass/fail courses).

Himachal Pradesh education authorities recommend the following scales. Please note the upper ranges of the marking system that are being used, a significant contrast to the old grading system that rarely marked above 80:


India’s prestigious Indian Institutes of Technology announced in July of this year that they would be introducing credit systems beginning at the undergraduate level in 2016, and allowing students to fast track their four-year B.Tech programs to 3.5 years, if desired.

Delhi University (DU) introduced the semester system in the 2011/12 academic year, extending all undergraduate programs beginning in 2013/14 to four years in order to accommodate extra choice and electives. That initiative was, however, overturned by the University Grants Commission in June of this year. DU has yet to introduce any kind of credit system, although that was planned as the next stage of the four-year undergraduate degree initiative, as a means of facilitating student mobility and inter-university credit transfers.

Bangalore University (650 affiliated colleges) will introduce the CBCS in all undergraduate and graduate programs, and all affiliated colleges are to introduce the CBCS system in the upcoming academic year. The new curriculum will include three internally assessed skills development subjects, and one of 14 co-curricular activities assessed for 50 marks. All students must also take Constitution of India and Human Rights, Environment and Public Health, and Computer Applications and Information Technology classes regardless of major.

Students can also withdraw after two years with an associate’s degree (advanced diploma), with the option of rejoining in the third year for a full bachelor’s degree if pursued within five years.

Reportedly, BU is the first in the state of Karnataka to fully introduce CBCS across the board.

The University of Mumbai (711 affiliated colleges & 475 programs) has been introducing the CBCS credit system in phases along with a new grading system. In 2011-12, the semester, credit and grading system were introduced, but according to prescribed programs without the option for electives outside the major.  Undergraduate degrees (B.A., B.Com, and B.Sc) are awarded on completion of 120 credits (20 per semester), with one credit equal to 30 – 40 learning hours. Graduate degrees are awarded on completion of 96 credits (24 per semester).

Evaluation is conducted by internal assessment with 40 percent by continuous assessment (20 marks for class tests, 10 marks for class assignment, and 10 marks for participation), and 60 percent through end-of-semester examinations marked centrally by UM for the final two semesters at the undergraduate level. At the graduate level, the university remains responsible for all examinations.

In its 2011 manual on the introduction of the new credit system, the university notes that the need for its introduction is based, among other things, on student mobility, especially as relates to twinning and joint degree programs offered with international partners.


Academic reforms in India are being introduced with a goal of increasing quality standards in tandem with initiatives designed to broaden access. Current reform initiatives are focused at the state level, where over 90 percent of the nation’s approximately 30 million higher-education students are enrolled.

With increased funding of traditionally underfunded state universities and colleges, the government aims to implement a raft of reforms that include, among other things: greater institutional autonomy, a new credit accumulation and transfer system, new assessment protocols, student-focused syllabi, and regular revisions to curriculum. These changes are aimed at leveraging India’s huge demographic advantage by producing graduates that are significantly better prepared to meet the needs of India’s rapidly growing economy than is the case today. Implementation of the reforms is currently underway.

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